MOGADISHU, Somalia — The president of a semiautonomous region in northeastern Somalia said Monday he will rule according to Islamic law, a surprising announcement in an area that has resisted the spread of Islamic militants who control much of the country's south.
Puntland President Gen. Addeh Museh did not cite a reason for his decision, but it comes amid increasing fears that the Council of Islamic Courts will try to seize his territory.
The move also isolates Somalia's official government, which has watched helplessly as the Islamic movement steadily gained ground since June. The U.N. envoy to Somalia tried to bolster the fragile administration Monday, urging leaders to restart peace talks with the Islamists in order to avert a war.
Somalia has not had an effective government since 1991, when warlords overthrew a dictator and then turned on each other. The current administration was formed with the help of the U.N. two years ago, but it has failed to assert any real control outside the southern town of Baidoa, where it is based.
Puntland, which declared itself an autonomous state within Somalia in 1998, has generally been spared the violence that has wracked much of the rest of the country. But radicals within the Islamic courts have vowed to take over.
"I set up a committee of scholars and traditional leaders to implement sharia law," Museh said in his presidential decree. Puntland usually enforces a secular penal code, even though the region's charter says it is based on sharia law.
The United States has accused Islamic movement of sheltering suspects in the 1998 al-Qaida bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Osama bin Laden has said Somalia is a battleground in his war on the West.
Francois Lonseny Fall, the U.N. secretary general's special representative to Somalia, met briefly with Somali President Abdullahi Yusuf on Monday before meeting privately with Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi.
"We strongly urge the transitional federal institutions to remain committed to dialogue. The international community is very, very concerned," Fall told Yusuf during his first visit to Somalia since August. Fall said his focus was to persuade the government, which has been wracked by infighting, to come together and restart talks with the Islamists. Somalia's most powerful lawmaker, Parliament Speaker Sharif Hassan Sheik Aden, traveled to Mogadishu earlier this month and brokered his own preliminary peace agreement with the courts, but the move was not authorized by the government.
Several peace initiatives in the country have failed, with both the government and Islamic movement trading accusations over who is to blame for the deadlock. Fears are mounting that a war in Somalia could engulf the region.
UN works to avoid war in Somalia
The United Nations special envoy for Somalia on Monday won a pledge from the country's weak government to patch up an internal rift on how to deal with powerful Islamists, with whom it is on the brink of war.
After talks aimed at reviving efforts to avert all-out conflict, the government said it would reconcile with the maverick Parliament speaker after disassociating itself from a unilateral peace initiative he made to Islamist-held Mogadishu.
The UN envoy, Francois Fall, went to the government's temporary seat of Baidoa seeking to prevent the collapse of the Somalia's so-called "transitional federal institutions", the government and Parliament.
In an address to lawmakers, Fall welcomed the government's decision to ask speaker Sharif Hassan Sheikh Aden to return to Baidoa from Mogadishu, where he travelled this month in an unauthorised, private initiative to seek peace with the Islamists.
"We welcome the government's call on the speaker to return to Baidoa to resume his duties," he said.
Earlier, Fall had told President Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, Prime Minister Ali Mohamed Gedi and other officials that the international community was "very very concerned" a rift between Parliament and the government could fuel war with the Islamists.
"Somalia is facing a very difficult moment. Your strength should be your unity. We want to prevent any action that might irreversibly damage the unity of the institutions," Fall said.
Gedi, however, said a joint government-Parliament committee had decided to ask Aden to return.
"They [Fall's delegation] came to us worrying about the unity of the transitional federal institutions. When they have read our unified position, their concerns have been addressed," Gedi said.
Aden incurred government wrath when he went to Mogadishu to broker a deal with the Islamists after the failure of a third round of peace talks in Khartoum on November 1.
A compromise he reached was rejected by the government, which said the speaker has no authority to negotiate on its behalf with Islamic leaders, some of whom are accused of al-Qaeda ties.
The Khartoum talks broke down when the Islamists refused to meet the government until Ethiopian troops in Somalia to protect it are withdrawn.
Aden's proposal retains such demands, but drops the Islamists' rejection of Kenya's participation as co-mediator with the Arab League.
It was not immediately clear if the decision to invite Aden back to Baidoa indicated a potential change in the government stance on returning to peace talks set to resume in mid-December.
"We didn't talk about that. We discussed the way forward. There is unanimity and unity [in] the federal institutions," Gedi told reporters.
"The dialogue between the Islamic courts and the transitional federal government should continue," Fall said.
Asked about the outcome of the talks, Fall replied: "It was a very successful meeting. We expressed our concerns and received all the assurances we needed."
The envoy added that he would meet the Islamists "as soon as it is possible".
Gedi said the government would resume talks without Islamist pre-conditions.
Security was tight on Falls's short drive from the airport to the presidential compound but people in his motorcade saw no indication of the thousands of Ethiopian troops believed to be in and around Baidoa to protect the government.
And on walking to the Parliament, Gedi showed Fall the burnt-out wreckage of several vehicles destroyed in a September 18 suicide attempt to assassinate Yusuf.
The Islamists deny any involvement, but have declared holy war on Ethiopian troops protecting the government.
The Islamists seized Mogadishu from United States-backed warlords in June and have since used the city as a base to take most of southern and central Somalia where they have imposed strict sharia law.
The government controls only Baidoa and a few outlying pockets but is allied with authorities in the semi-autonomous north-eastern enclave of Puntland on which the Islamists are advancing.
A report compiled by experts monitoring a 1992 UN arms embargo said the Somali situation contains "all of the ingredients for the increasing possibility of a violent, widespread, and protracted military conflict".
Ethiopia and Eritrea, still at odds over their own 1998 to 2000 border war, have thousands of combat troops in Somalia, according to the report. Both countries deny this, though Addis Ababa acknowledges sending military advisors
Somalia: Minister Denies Any Ethiopian Armored Vehicle Blasted Or Soldier Killed
Somalia's interim government has denied that a number of Ethiopian armored vehicles were blown up and soldiers killed in an ambush attack on the outskirts of Baidoa, a seat for the government.
Salad Ali Jelle, assistant minister of defense, has told Shabelle Radio in Mogadishu that there were no clashes between number of Ethiopian troops with number of battlewagons and armed residential militiamen in Kansah Omane environs near Bardale district in southern Somalia.
Ironically, the Union of Islamic Courts information secretary Abdirahim Ali Mudey, has stated Bardale residents whom he said were against Ethiopian troops in their country have blown up two Ethiopian armored vehicles, alleging that residents have also killed at least 50 soldiers.
The government's assistant minister of defense Jelle has vehemently denied that any fighting against Ethiopians had taken place in southern Somalia, indicating that it was a propaganda overstated by Islamic Courts.
Somalia has become a great political challenge for long time rival enemies, Ethiopia and Eritrea, which fought over borders from 1998 to 2000.
Both countries have been among the ten countries recently mentioned in UN report that were accused of providing Somalia's vying parties with various types of weapons.
International experts for Somalia's political challenges say they fear Somalia could become a proxy war for Ethiopia and Eritrea that are deeply involved in meddling the country's exacerbating situations.
Jelle admitted the presence of thousands of Ethiopian forces in Somalia's Bai provincial town of Baidoa where the interim government has remained largely powerless following its formation in neighboring Kenya in 2004.
"for the past 16 years Somalia has had no special national forces so the Ethiopians are here to train our military troops", he said.
Asked if the government has ordered the publishing of billions of fake Somali shillings, Jelle denied the government ordered fake Somali money. "The government is legitimate. If it had to order publishing Somali shillings, the Somali parliament has to approve it in majority".
The minister's remarks came as large numbers of Ethiopian troops and armored vehicles had crossed into the Somali border, passing through Gedo province in Southern Somalia and then to Baidoa, the government's temporary headquarter.
Uganda's president rejects UN Somalia arms report
LONDON, Nov 20 (Reuters) - Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni on Monday dismissed as false a United Nations report accusing it and nine other countries of arming and sending troops to back factions in Somalia's conflict.
"Somalia? We have not sent troops to Somalia," Museveni told reporters in London. "That's false, that's false."
A U.N.-commissioned report named Uganda alongside Ethiopia as countries supplying arms, personnel and equipment to Somalia's weak interim government in its standoff with Islamists who control Mogadishu.
Other countries, including Libya and Yemen, were accused of supporting the Islamists.
Somalia has been without a functioning government since the fall of former dictator Siad Barre in 1991 sparked the collapse of the country into quarrelling fiefdoms.
A 14th attempt to install a government was torpedoed by Islamist forces who took control of Mogadishu from U.S.-backed warlords in June and captured large parts of the country.
HORN OF AFRICA
Analysts say that if war erupts between the two sides vying for control of Somalia it would likely spill over the country's borders and engulf the Horn of Africa.
The U.N.-commissioned report on violations of a 1992 arms embargo listed 10 countries and militant groups who experts say are arming, equipping and training both sides.
The report said monitors had sent a letter to Uganda regarding the allegations but had received no response.
Uganda's defence minister said on Friday no Ugandan official had received any letter of inquiry and vowed to complain formally to the United Nations about the report.
Speaking during a visit to London, Museveni parried several questions about the situation in Somalia. "Ah Somalia, you go and ask the African Union. They know more about it," he said when asked for his views.
"I answer where I am mandated, but I do not usurp power that does not belong to me ... Somalia, I don't have answers."